In 2014, Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager, Jerry Jones, won NFL Executive of the Year. The Cowboys were fresh off just their second playoff win over their last 18 seasons and they might’ve had more had it not been for a controversial ruling on the Dez Bryant catch. The success that year caught some people off guard. Coming off three straight 8-8 seasons, not many people expected the team to do that well. Especially after the team released their best pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, let Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jason Hatcher walk in free agency, and then lost Sean Lee for the season on the last day of OTA’s. It looked like it was going to be a nightmare season for the Cowboys.
But it wasn’t.
The Cowboys had answers. It came in the form of great drafting that included Zack Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Anthony Hitchens. They also made a deal to acquire Rolando McClain who helped deal with the loss of Lee at linebacker. And they got contributions from no-name rotational defensive linemen like Jeremy Mincey, George Selvie, and Terrell McClain. The front office did an outstanding job that year.
Of course, Jerry got all the credit, but we know better. That’s because Jerry went on record saying silly things like...
“If we had picked Manziel, he’d guarantee our relevance for 10 years,” he said in May. “When we were on the clock, I said if we pick the other guy -- any other guy -- it would be a ticket to parity, more 8-8 seasons.
”The only way to break out is to gamble -- take a chance with that first pick, if you wanna dramatically improve your team. That’s why I wanted Manziel but I was the only guy who wanted him. I listened to everybody ... And I’m ... not ... happy ... .”
Fortunately for all of us, the cooler heads of Jason Garrett, Will McClay, and Stephen Jones prevailed and the Cowboys took an un-sexy guard instead, who just so happens to be the best guard in the NFL now. 2014 was definitely a great year for the Cowboys organization, but it was just the beginning. Since that season, they have done many more equally impressive moves. And like passing on Johnny Manziel, some of the best moves are the ones you don’t make. Here are the top front-office decisions of the Cowboys over the last four years.
Note: These are player personnel decision so coaching moves are not considered, and let’s face it - we could almost come up with an entire top 10 list of those things alone. So, Kris Richard, Ben Bloom, and Marc Colombo - we still love you, just not in this piece.
Before we get to the top 10, let’s address some honorable mentions...
Releasing Dan Bailey
This move came with a lot head shaking from fans because Bailey wasn’t far removed from being the NFL’s all time most accurate kicker. Unfortunately, he’s struggling and the team had the foresight to move on before it got worse. Bailey missed five field goals last year which had been a career worst, but he’s already missed six this season despite just playing in 10 games. Brett Maher hasn’t been without his mistakes, but he’s knocking down field goals at an 85% rate, which is what Bailey was doing in 2016 before things went south for him.
Cutting Bailey saved $3.4 million and Maher only costs $480,000 so this is a win-win for the Cowboys.
Re-signing Joe Looney
The Cowboys initially signed Joe Looney to a two-year deal in 2016 and was solid in the 250 snaps he saw over the course of two seasons. So nobody thought much when the Cowboys brought him back this offseason. As it turns out, that was a big move. Looney as been very reliable filling in for Travis Frederick this season.
Signing Cam Fleming
See last year’s Chaz Green Atlanta debacle.
Cowboys offense in 2017 with Tyron Smith = 28.5 pts/game (ranked 4th)— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) June 3, 2018
Cowboys offense in 2017 without Tyron Smith = 8.0 pts/game (ranked last)
Poor chemistry with Dez, no Zeke...those things hurt, but there is no greater Dak-friendly piece than your All Pro left tackle. pic.twitter.com/KxIbDON6DK
Tyron Smith has already missed two games and free agent swing tackle signing Cam Fleming is filling in nicely. In fact, with Smith this year, the offense is averaging 20.3 points a game (not good). Without him, they’re averaging 22 points a game (not worse). You can’t discount how abusive Smith is against pass rushers, but Fleming’s such a breath of fresh air compared to what the team had last season.
Releasing Dez Bryant
If you made a top 10 list of worst moves this front-office has made, entering the 2018 season with the receiving group they had would likely make the cut. The Cowboys missed the boat on that one.
While they were caught unprepared, the decision to release Dez Bryant was still necessary. Many thought (raises hand) that Dez was going to get scooped up quickly and flourish on another team. The reality is that Bryant’s skills have declined. Gone are the days he can dominate with his athleticism and he’s just not fundamentally sound to win one-on-one battles frequently enough. The team may have not had the answer (just yet), but they knew Dez wasn’t it and for how much he was costing, he just wasn’t worth it. Sometimes you have to get it over with and pull the band aid off fast.
Now, for the top 10...
10. Not trading for Earl Thomas (2018)
The Earl Thomas talks dominated the headlines throughout the offseason and spilled over into the regular season up until the trade deadline. After Thomas walked up to Jason Garrett in the tunnel after their meeting last season, it was clear he wanted to play for the Cowboys. And let’s be real - the Cowboys wanted him right back. The two teams were unable to strike a deal, although Seattle was willing to deal him to Dallas for their second-round pick during the draft, but when Connor Williams was still available, the Cowboys said no thanks.
The Seahawks weren’t able to trade Thomas and it got worse for them when he suffered a season-ending leg injury just four games into the season. But it’s not the injury to Thomas that puts this no-deal on this list. I mean, that’s pure luck. It’s the fact that the Cowboys didn’t cave and trade away draft capital to get him. If they are interested in Thomas, they can still get him in the offseason when he becomes a free agent. In fact, coming off a leg injury should reduce his cost.
But even more than that is how the organization believed in the players they had even though we weren’t so sure. As it turns out - they were right. The Cowboys safeties are playing better than most expected as players like Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods are doing a great job. The team is getting great contribution from Woods and his numbers are comparable to some of the top performing free safeties in the league, making the decision to pass on Thomas that much better.
Considering the Cowboys are getting top-shelf production out of a 23-year-old who’s set to make only $684K next season, and $595K for what he’s doing in 2018, the math can’t and won’t be ignored. The former sixth-round pick already has three INTs, 10 pass deflections and 79 combined tackles in only 14 career starts, and those are numbers that make the front office in Dallas smile from ear-to-ear.
9. Remodeling the secondary (2017)
Stephen Jones and Will McClay got together last year and decided the 2017 draft was stocked with plenty of good eats in the defensive backs department. They decided to let their own free agents walk and replenish them with young draft picks. Players like Barry Church, Brandon Carr, and Morris Claiborne all got $5+ million paychecks, while newcomers Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Woods all were super cheap for the next four years.
At first, people regretted seeing some of the veterans leave. Maybe a highlight here or there made them think Dallas made a mistake letting them get away, especially Barry Church who enjoyed success on Jacksonville’s defense. The Jags were third in the league last year in points allowed.
But things are different now. It’s the Cowboys who have the strong defense as they are second in the league in points allowed. And things aren’t going well for Church. Last week, he was benched in favor of a rookie and this past Thursday he wasn’t even active. That’s an expensive healthy scratch.
Barry Church, Brandon Carr, and Morris Claiborne are a combined $19 million cap hit this year, which is $10 million more than the Cowboys are paying for their entire secondary this season.
Younger, cheaper, and, oh this is the best part....BETTER!
Good job, front office.
The decision to remodel the secondary was a great move not only because the Cowboys now have better, younger players, but also because the money they saved is going to come in handy to retain their own stars like DeMarcus Lawrence and Amari Cooper. That’s money well spent.
8. Not paying more for Sammy Watkins (2018)
The Cowboys made a push to get the top wide receiver selected in the 2014 NFL draft as the former fourth-overall draft pick, Sammy Watkins, entered free agency this past offseason. While it’s unclear just how much the Cowboys were willing to fork out, the Kansas City Chiefs won the Watkins sweepstakes by giving him a three-year, $48 million deal, averaging $16 million per season. That’s a hefty price considering Watkins hasn’t actually been lighting it up in recent years.
He hasn’t played a full season since his rookie year and didn’t have great numbers his last year in Buffalo. He was traded to the Los Angeles Rams last year, but only had 593 yards receiving in a high-powered offense. And once again he’s playing for another offensive juggernaut with the Chiefs, but only has 519 yards receiving.
Little did we know at the time that the Cowboys were planning to move away from Dez Bryant and Watkins was their prime target. It looks like they overvalued him, but luckily they didn’t outbid the Chiefs because that would have been a costly financial commitment. And if they signed Watkins, the Cowboys aren’t going after Amari Cooper as they would no longer have the funds to re-up his deal after his rookie contract expired.
The Cowboys stuck to their price and luckily for us, the Chiefs price was higher.
7. Selecting Jaylon Smith over Myles Jack (2016)
It’s taken this long, but we can finally say that the Cowboys made the right decision in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Both Jaylon Smith and Myles Jack had knee issues that were completely different, but extremely risky. Smith’s injury required his nerve to regenerate and it wasn’t clear if he’d ever be able to play again, let alone at a high level. Jack had a degenerative knee that could require microfracture surgery at some point in the future.
As expected, Jack was the better player early on as Smith patiently went through his rehab. But with each new day, Smith kept getting stronger. This season, Jaylon finally looks healthy and is flying all over the field. He’s now the better player and should be from this point on.
I don't know much in this crazy world, but I do know that Jaylon Smith isn't getting Put Da Team On My Back'd in this scenario like Myles Jack just did. pic.twitter.com/w3xwGJksq3— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) December 7, 2018
The Cowboys trusted their doctor and the fact that Jaylon’s make up would allow him to do everything it takes to get his body right. Smith is such a great guy and the Cowboys rewarded him by selecting him 34th overall and now he’s repaying them with outstanding linebacker play.
6. Trade for Amari Cooper (2018)
There are two types of people when it comes to the Amari Cooper - those who loved it right away and those who loved it after a few games. The Cowboys decided they needed some big help at wide receiver and had an opportunity to get him from Oakland because apparently the Raiders are allergic to young, talented players.
The Cowboys front-office is usually against giving up premium draft capital as the days of Jerry Jones wheeling in dealing so frivolously are long gone. It’s like pulling teeth to get them to give up their top picks, yet that’s exactly what they did to acquire Cooper. The deal came with a lot of criticism, but Cooper has provided a huge boost to this offense. And the best thing about him is that he’s young and the Cowboys can afford to re-sign him thanks to many of the decisions we’re discussing. The team loves him and he’s a perfect fit - what a great trade that’s turning out to be.
I guess there are some that still aren’t convinced, but there’s no pleasing everyone. Would you rather have Cooper or the mystery box?
That’s part one of our list. In a little bit, we’ll publish part two that will cover decisions 5-1 finish off our top 10.